by John Vannie
Virginia Tech overcame a pair of 17 point deficits in the first half to pull out a 34-31 victory over beleaguered Notre Dame in the final home game for the Irish seniors. DeShone Kizer had a great first half for the hosts, but was never quite the same after absorbing multiple, blatant hits to the head later in the game. Surprisingly, none of these cheap shots was flagged on the field or reviewed by an officiating crew that aided and abetted the Hokie comeback at every turn. Still, Brian Kelly and the Irish deserve most of the blame for another poorly played second half in which the defense wilted and the offensive staff had no answer for Virginia Tech’s adjustments.
Notre Dame enjoyed a fast start while the Hokies were shaky at the outset. Kizer directed a quick scoring drive in 3:09 that Josh Adams finished with a one yard touchdown run. After quarterback Jerod Evans fumbled the ball back to the Irish at midfield, they drove to the one yard line before going backwards and settling for a field goal and a 10-0 lead. Those unrealized four points would prove costly though.
Evans recovered his own fumble on the next Hokie series, but they had to punt after a three and out. Once again, Kizer was on the money, hitting Chris Finke on a 31-yard post route on the first play of the second period for a 17-0 advantage. Virginia Tech finally got its offense going as Evans answered with a 23-yard touchdown run to cap a long drive featuring seven runs and two short passes. After an exchange of punts, the Irish briefly regained the momentum when Kizer threw a strike to Miles Boykin for a 24-7 lead at the six minute mark.
The Hokies would not go away, however, and sent a message they would fight to the end by scoring with just over a minute left in the half. Tech then took the second half kickoff and Evans hit C.J. Carroll on a 62-yard slant and go to set up another score. The one-sided contest suddenly became close as the Hokies were now within 24-21. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s offense was sputtering as Virginia Tech turned up the pressure on Kizer and made adjustments in coverage. They also painted a target on Kizer’s helmet during this stretch, although quite mysteriously none of these egregious hits were noticed by the officials.
Things changed dramatically once again after the Hokies appeared to be in control. Evans threw another deep slant that had touchdown written all over it, but the ball bounced off the hands of his receiver into the arms of Irish safety Drue Tranquill for a rare interception. Adams responded a few plays later with a 67-yard burst to put the hosts back in command by 31-21 as the third quarter ticked down.
Notre Dame’s defense stiffened in the red zone on the next series to force a short field goal early in the fourth period, and the Irish were clinging to a 31-24 lead. Tech then forced a three and out and began driving into scoring territory. Just when it appeared Notre Dame would hold, a horrific pass interference call on cornerback Cole Luke gave the Hokies a first down on the eight yard line. Evans hit Bucky Hodges for the tying touchdown two plays later after Hodges pushed off his defender to get open.
The Irish got the ball back in a tie game with nine minutes left, but could not generate a first down as Kelly abandoned the running game. Kizer, who was brilliant in the first half with 199 yards and two scores, was held to three completions in 15 attempts for 36 yards after intermission. Kelly, of course, blamed the players’ lack of execution for the reversal rather than his own inability to react to Tech’s halftime adjustments. “We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively”, he said.
Evans went to work after getting the ball back and mixed crisp passes with effective runs to bring the Hokies inside the Irish five. Jarron Jones led the charge defensively and Tech had to settle for another short field goal by Joey Slye to take the lead for the first time by 34-31. Notre Dame had four minutes to answer, but a third down sack ended the series and they punted it away. The Hokies then ran down the clock to 1:07 remaining before punting it to the Irish ten yard line. Kizer tried gamely into the wind to give Justin Yoon a chance at a tying kick, but the Irish ran out of time. In fact, Kizer was hit in the head again on a scramble, and Malik Zaire had to come into the game for a final, inconsequential pass attempt.
The bitter loss dropped Notre Dame to 4-7 on the season and gave the seniors another gut punch to commemorate their final game in the stadium. The future of Kelly in South Bend seems unshakable from the exterior, but his failures this season against a weak schedule are not going unnoticed by the media, alumni and the fan base at large.
Let’s review the answers to Sean’s pregame questions:
Will Brian Kelly run the ball more than he throws? It was a 50/50 proposition, although Kizer had the largest share of the carries for the Irish and paid the price for it. Adams had only 13 attempts, which is criminally negligent.
Will the Notre Dame pass defense be able to hang with this elite receiving corp? After a strong first half, the Irish safeties were torched over the middle for big plays.
Will Virginia Tech avoid costly turnovers? The Hokies won in spite of committing two costly turnovers to none for Notre Dame.
Which special teams unit will avoid the big mistake? No giant gaffes were committed this week, but Tech got the better of the return game with some positive yardage. Tyler Newsome punted well for the Irish.
Does Jarron Jones emerge from his 2 week coma? Jones was better and did a good job of clogging the middle all day.
Will this be Brian Kelly’s final game in South Bend? The Administration is not talking, but let’s get to the Grotto this week and not take any chances.